Labor Day and the spirit of Joe Hill
Joe Hill, workers’ martyr, was executed by firing squad
nearly a century ago, but his message lives on: ‘Don’t mourn – organise!’
l eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
– “The Preacher and the Slave”, a parody hymn written by rebel singer and labour icon Joe Hill
Anyone who is a fan of Billy Bragg, as I am, or Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie or the sixties protest singer Phil Ochs knows that radical America’s greatest songwriter-educator Joe Hill is still alive in the young-in-heart on this besieged Labor Day.
Joe, a Swedish immigrant and wandering troubadour-troublemaker, was a “Wobbly”, an agitating member of the One Big Union, the red flag International Workers of the World, a harum-scarum, mad-as-hell, happy-in-fellowship bunch of hoboes and gypsy workingmen who scared the pants off business leaders, pious church-goers, police chiefs, governors and all right-thinking citizens in the early part of the last century.
As a just published, terrific biography of Hill, The Man Who Never Died, by William Adler, makes clear yet again, Joe Hillström (né Joel Hägglund, his birth name) was framed on a murder charge in Salt Lake City, Utah, strapped into a chair and shot by a firing squad.
IWW hero Joe HillIn my house, wherever we moved, my mother always put up two pictures, the labour lawyer who once defended her, Clarence Darrow (after whom I’m named), and the seditious martyr Joe Hill. As Joe may have shrewdly deduced on his last day, when the guards came for him – and a possible reason why he refused to testify for himself at his rigged trial – he may have been more valuable to the movement as a bullet-punctured corpse than he would have been alive: a reminder that the class struggle for which he was surrendering his life was – and is – as undying as his legacy on this Labor Day, 2011.
My mother, a skilled craftswoman on a sweater-making machine, felt split between her conservative union motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” and the IWW’s revolutionary preamble – “Abolition of the wage system is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.” In her lifetime – she witnessed the 1911 Triangle Fire annihilation of 146 immigrant young women – most of her co-workers took the “class war” as a obvious fact of life; they held a consensus that, in the IWW’s ringing words, “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”
In pre-first world war America, the employing class had no ethical problem deploying federal and state troops to murder working people. The massacres at Ludlow, Cripple Creek, Thibodaux, Coeur d’Alene, Pullman, Everett and so many other bleeding grounds are burned into what’s left of labour’s institutional memory. Or as a New York judge told striking female garment workers, “You are on strike against God.”
“The copper bosses killed you Joe
They shot you Joe, says I
Takes more than guns to kill a man
Says Joe I didn’t die…
Joe Hill’s IWW believed in head-on, confrontational direct action based on what we now fashionably call participatory democracy or self-management. Hence, you rolled into town in a box car and met spontaneously with other bindlestiffs and bums like yourself, and did what had to be done on a voice vote and no Roberts Rules of Order. You struck industrially, sabotaged when appropriate, and constantly tested the limits of free speech laws. Arrested en masse (and beaten, sometimes lynched), you whistled for your socialist, anarchist, what-the-hell comrades who poured in from all corners of the United States to fill the Podunk jails where you drove the sheriff and his deputies nuts with your tactics. One of which was to jump up and down in the jailhouse in unison until the flimsy wood structure broke apart around you as in a Buster Keaton movie.
The IWW was unique in its timefor admitting African Americans, illegal immigrants, Asians and women – an inclusiveness that was revolutionary in its day. That’s when labour really sang. Before Lieber and Stoller, before Irving Berlin and Tin Pan Alley, there was Joe Hill, who would, when the spirit moved him (usually in a bar or doss house), plunk-plunk a tune on his guitar, often a witty takeoff on a religious hymn or a current popular ditty. His verses, like “Rebel Girl”, “There is Power in the Union” and “Casey Jones: Union Scab”, soon included in the IWW’s bestselling ten-cents-a-copy Little Red Songbook, became for workers – all over the world – their version of platinum. Wherever “wheat bums” (migrant farm workers), miners, railroad stiffs, dockers and sailors, the unemployed and hungry gathered, they sang their hearts out from the Little Red Song Book.
To “be union” was to sing songs at the top of your voice; melody, Marxism and militancy were braided into One Big Union.
Labour today doesn’t have much to sing about. Organised labour – organised into structured unions tied to collective bargaining contracts, that is – is on the ropes. By all indices, Americans are working harder for less money – that is, when they are working at all. Unemployment and under-employment numbers at anywhere from 25 to 30 million, and the angry, unorganised jobless have yet to fight back except for the self-destructive manifestations of frustrated rage. Republicans in Congress hate the unemployed. If they could, they’d get rid of unemployment insurance altogether, which GOP minority whip Jon Kyl sneers at as a “disincentive for them to seek new work”.
Kyl and his Republican and Blue Dog Democrat colleagues – direct descendants of Gilded Age barons who ordered workers shot down – with an enabling President Obama, who hasn’t lifted a finger to help unions he once promised to meet on the picket line, have united to declare old-fashioned class war on working people. Joe Hill and his spirited IWW comrades like the “rebel girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, anarchist Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood and Gene Debs would immediately get it. The same victims, same union-busting tactics only now with $1000-per-hour billable lawyers: and the same enemy.
Except that Joe Hill didn’t believe in victims, only fighters. The day before his execution, he told friends:
“Tomorrow I expect to make a trip to the planet Mars and, if so, will immediately commence to organise the Mars canal workers into the IWW, and we will sing the good old songs so loud that the learned stargazers will once and for all get positive proof that the planet Mars is really inhabited … Don’t mourn for me – Organise!”
At its peak, the IWW could count on half a million supporters in the US. Today, albeit in the thousands, in the US, UK, Australia and Canada, they’re the fighting young, between ages 20 and 30, with websites and strong hearts. And they’re organising – New York immigrant food workers, panhandlers in Vancouver, Chicago bike messengers, City of London cleaners – even at your favourite Starbucks.
You can’t kill the spirit of Joe Hill.